From Sand and Ash(9)

By: Amy Harmon


Camillo would shift guiltily in his seat, but his answer was always the same. “I know it is Shabbat, and of course Eva knows the prayers! I am a Jew. I will always be a Jew. Eva is a Jew. She will always be a Jew. Not because we go to the synagogue. Not because we observe holidays. It is our heritage. It is who we are, who we will always be.”

Lately, they had talked more and more about the growing anti-Semitism in the reports on the radio and in the newspapers. Camillo’s brother-in-law, Felix Adler, with his clipped German-Austrian accent, so different from the rising and falling, rolling Italian the rest of the family spoke, had even threatened to leave Italy when the Manifesto della Razza had been published in the newspapers last July, causing an uproar that ruined August. The family had vacationed on Maremma, just like they did every year, escaping the heat of the city for the seashore. But the Manifesto of Race had come along with them and occupied their thoughts and hijacked their happiness.

“Mussolini is building a case against us. He is saying we Jews haven’t served our country well. It is our fault that wages are low and taxes are high. It is our fault that housing is limited, food is scarce, and schools are crowded. It is because of the Jews that there are no jobs and crime rates are soaring, you know,” Camillo had said, shaking his head in disgust.

Augusto would scoff. He was always more optimistic than his older brother. “The only newspapers that are printing things like that are those trying to get government money. They spew the nonsense and cozy up to the Fascist powers that be. Nobody believes it. Italians know better.”

“But Italians are allowing it. It is being tolerated. Whether our friends like it or not, it is being tolerated. We Jews are tolerating it! We are not so long out of the ghetto that we have grown a sense of righteous indignation. We hope that the worst won’t happen, all the while expecting that it will, so when it does, we aren’t surprised. You know, Augusto, someone leaned some old rusted gates against the wall across from the café on Via San Giana where I drink my coffee every morning. There was a sign on them. It said, ‘Put the Jews Back in the Ghetto.’ It’s been there for over a week. No one has taken it down. I didn’t take it down,” he had added in a shamed murmur.

“The king will put a stop to it. Mark my words,” Augusto pushed back.

“King Emmanuel will do what Mussolini tells him to do,” Camillo had predicted with finality.

Eva had heard it all, but they were all old men to Eva. Camillo, Augusto, Mussolini, and the king. Old men who talked too much. And she was a young woman who was not inclined to listen.

On September 5, 1938, a week after returning from the seashore, a new law, authored by the Fascists and signed by the king, declared that Jews could no longer send their children to public or private Italian schools or be employed in any capacity in any Italian school from kindergarten to university. It was the first of many laws to come.

Eva had finished secondary school the spring before, and instead of applying to university, she decided to explore her options. Camillo had warned her not to wait to apply, but she had dragged her feet. She just wanted to play music for a while. She was a member of the Orchestra della Toscana and had been for two years, and she was the youngest violinist ever to win first chair. Plus, she had three boyfriends who kept her very busy—a Jewish boy who played the cello, a Catholic boy who played hard to get, and a Firenze policeman who looked handsome in his uniform and loved to dance. She was juggling them all with no plans to stop any time soon. She was young, beautiful, and life was good. So she didn’t apply. And suddenly that door was closed to her.

The morning after the bad dream, Eva awoke to a different sort of nightmare. When she walked into the kitchen looking for breakfast, Santino was sitting in his regular spot at the scarred table where Fabia served his coffee—she said the dining room was for Camillo and Eva—and he was reading from La Stampa, a national newspaper he read every week from cover to cover. Three other papers were stacked beneath it, and every so often he ran his hand down his face, from eyebrows to chin, saying “mio Dio” like he couldn’t believe what he was reading. Fabia was crying.

“What’s wrong, Nonna?” Eva asked, going to her side immediately. Her thoughts rushed to Angelo, the way they always did, worried that something had happened to him.

“There are new laws, Eva,” Santino said grimly. He tapped the page of newsprint he was holding. “More laws. Against the ebrei. The Jews.”

“Where will we go?” Fabia asked Eva. “We don’t want to leave you.”